A Long Obedience in the Same Direction

By Matt Henslee

Eugene Peterson penned a classic book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, many years ago. We live in a day where we can pull a small rectangle from our pocket and have near-limitless access to near-countless mediums for information – instantly.

With the tap of a finger, you can read breaking news a day before it hits a newspaper, hours before it airs on a newscast, and often, minutes before it is “broken” on a major news network’s website.

Further, you can spend more than an hour cooking a meal at home, 30 minutes waiting for your food at a restaurant or just drive through your favorite fast-food spot and have it in your hands a moment after you finish your order.

Instant gratification makes life incredibly convenient, but it carries a cost into our church ministries we ought to take into account.

Think about it; you can say, “I’ll have a No. 1,” and receive your order a few seconds later, but share the gospel with an unbeliever and receive only a blank stare. You can preach the greatest news of all, week in and week out, and stand during the invitation all alone.

That is why it is helpful to consider Eugene Peterson’s call for a long obedience in the same direction. Peterson based his book on Psalms 120-134, the Songs of Ascents sung by pilgrims on their way up to worship in Jerusalem. There, Peterson finds encouragement for us as we learn to grow in worship, service, joy, work, happiness, humility, community and blessing.

That call, a long obedience in the same direction, is helpful as a way to learn a new skill or working towards losing weight (and much more) – but I believe we find it most beneficial in our preaching the Good News.

Allow me a moment to illustrate why with a moving story I recently found during sermon preparation.

A Painful Reminder

There once was an old preacher struggling to stay in the fight of gospel ministry. To make matters worse, one of his deacons criticized him moments before their worship gathering started. His criticism was a painful reminder, “Pastor, there has only been one added to our rolls this year … and it was only a little boy.”

The pastor knew this, of course, but the reminder cut him to the core.

He ended up preaching his message, thinking about resigning after the sermon the entire time. As everyone was leaving, he found himself face to face with the “little boy” that marked their only addition that year. The boy began to inquire about how he could become a preacher or missionary.

The response blessed the pastor, but that’s not the best part.

The young boy was Robert Moffat, a Scottish pioneer missionary to South Africa for over 50 years. Throughout his mission work in South Africa, Moffat opened mission stations, translated the Bible into the language of the people and wrote two missionary books still encouraging missionaries today. Interestingly, he also was the father-in-law of David Livingstone, the famed explorer and missionary to Africa.

Nevertheless, that old preacher was struggling. His sermons seemed to bounce off the wall and seemed to accomplish very little – aside from that little boy. Yet amid his faithful plodding, God was working. That old preacher might have been ready to quit, but God was only getting started. Because of that preacher’s faithfulness, the world has been forever changed.

I love my denominational family and have had opportunities to lead and serve in a variety of ways, but my chief desire is to love my family well, faithfully shepherd my church, die and be forgotten. Still, God has also burdened me with a desire to encourage pastors who are barely hanging on by a thread.

If that’s you, allow me a word (or a few). If you are like that old preacher, wondering if you are making a difference, keep reading.

Stay Faithful

If you are struggling, press on. You are called only to be faithful – you have to remember God is still working, even when we cannot see what He is doing. Your faithfulness may not get noticed in your denomination. You might get passed over on committee appointments or the conference circuit. What is more, you may not know your reach in a lifetime.

If you have preached 10 sermons or 1,000, with little or no response, and see a baptistery filled not with water, but with cobwebs: press on. It might feel like you are spinning your tires in mud, but while you are spinning faithfully, God is working.

And one day, one Glorious Day, you’ll know.

On that day, all the tears, all the seemingly wasted sermons (Listen: There is no such thing if you will preach Christ.) and all of the frustrations will pale in comparison to what God accomplished through your two mites of faithful exposition.

Paul charges us in 2nd Timothy to “preach the Word.” Notice what he did not say. I have looked it up in every version of the Scriptures I have – none of them translate Paul’s words to “Hit a home run,” or “Wow them with your brilliance.” He said, simply, “Preach the Word.”

Just preach. God will handle the rest.

You are not called to be Adrian Rogers; you may not have the reach of Billy Graham; you may never find yourself on the conference circuit – and that is OK. You are simply called to be “(insert your name here), faithful preacher of the Word.” That is all. And that is all God requires of you.

You might not realize this, but it is not your job to build your church. It is Jesus’ job, and there is no foundation other than Him. In fact, should you build your church on the foundation of your brilliance, your personality, or anything of you – what happens when you leave?

Instead, if you will put your faithfulness on the altar — along with your desires to grow a platform or build a name for yourself — and follow Paul’s encouragement to Timothy to “preach the Word … with great patience,” Jesus promises to take care of the rest.

Remember that as you enter the study during the week and approach the pulpit on Sundays. Just be faithful.

Leave a Legacy of Faithfulness

I shared the story about that old preacher being used by God to send Robert Moffat into missions and onto changing the world and learned some missionaries our church supports have friends descended from Robert Moffat. Get this: They are missionaries too!

In fact, they sold some land to another missionary couple I served alongside years ago. It is still used today to continue to advance the kingdom as a training ground for pastors and missionaries. All because one faithful preacher on the end of his rope decided to stay in the fight. He was faithful to preach the Word and had no idea his influence would end up being incalculable

Yours will be, too, my brother.

So, preach the Word and leave the results to God. He is working, far more than you realize. The results may not be as instantaneous as we expect in our instant society, but a long obedience in the same direction is all God requires.

This post originally appeared on Preaching Source.

Published February 4, 2021

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Matt Henslee

Matt Henslee (@mhenslee) is the pastor of Mayhill Baptist Church in Mayhill, New Mexico, D.Min student of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of a few books, including Evangelize to Revitalize and Text-Driven Invitation.